Jim Cuno is a powerful man. As director of the Art Institute of Chicago, he is the head of an institution that owns one of the largest collections of artworks in the world. Getting to that position is no easy feat, and to add to that, when Cuno stepped into the position previously occupied by James Wood, the museum had just embarked on its ambitious $200 million expansion to create a Modern Wing, scheduled to open next year. Since July 2008, Cuno has been thrust to the center of an international debate about the restitution of some of the artifacts that form part of the “Benin—Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria” exhibit, which opened for the first time in Vienna last year. These were “acquired” by the British in 1897, and the Art Institute now holds 20 in its permanent collection. On issues like these, the museum needs a strong spokesperson, and Cuno is definitely the man for the job. He’s an outspoken proponent of the “universal museum,” arguing that artifacts held in the collections of American art museum’s should remain there, universally available to the public. And all this is detailed in Cuno’s book, Who Owns Antiquity? which was published in May by Princeton University Press. Cuno talks to F Newsmagazine about his dedication to art history and how he got where he is today.
Justin Rowe: You navigated between work and school on a few occasions, how did you handle the transition periods?
Jim Cuno: After I finished my undergraduate degree, I went to San Francisco, it was early 1970’s. SF was hopping, its was a great exciting time to live there. I worked in a warehouse which allowed me to live in SF and explore things, like Jazz music, new electronic music, theater, that kind of thing. It was just great fun to be there. That lead me into the theater, to pursue theater I had to move elsewhere and to be a janitor at theater while I pursued trying to be an actor or director or whatever I was going to be. I did that for a couple of years and realized I was neither a good actor, nor a good janitor. SO what else to do?
I had grown interested in art History over the course of time so I thought “I’ll try art history.”
JR:Which personality qualities are important to be a leader in the arts?
JC: I’d say there are 3 top ones; well there may be 4; 1 is to have a clear moral center, to know what is right and whats wrong. Second is to be able to articulate the mission of the institution, what is an art museum and why is it important to people in their communities. The third is to have significant rhetorical skills, its a job of talking, and writing, telling stories convincing people to do things, you lead with words as much as anything. the fourth is endurance, its a tiring job, you have to have energy. and I guess a fifth one is you have to like people, because you have to work with them all the time, this isn’t a job of someone sitting at the top of a pyramid telling people what to do, its a job of convincing people to work with you to achieve some end goal.
JR: Do you pay much attention to the trends in the contemporary art market?
JC: I’m aware of them, but I rely on our curator of contemporary art to bring them to my attention. In that sense I’m no more aware of trends in the contemporary than I am of trends in the Asian or ancients fields. Those are the experts and I rely on their expertise to bring them to my attention.
JR: Is there any particular field that for your own love of it and expertise you are still involved in?
JC: No. My academic back ground and teaching career was always spent teaching 19th century European art. and I loved it. the benefit of being museum director is that you are constantly learning something new from someone who knows a lot more than you about this great big wonderful world called the history of art. What I like most now is to learn about things I know little about, and not to continue refining what I know about 19th century European art. What I know least right now is what I’m most interested in.
JR: What is that?
JC: The ancient near east. Maybe inspired by the present near east and all the problems in that part of the world. It is in many ways the origins of civilisation. I’m interested in the beginnings of things, those most distant from us.
JR: Do you think the new wing of the museums is about celebrating the moment?
JC: I think its a dialoge between the present and the past. The Past informs the present, the present informs the past. I sort of sound like T.S. Elliot right now. What distinguishes a museum like ours from say the Museum of Contemporary Art, is that We’ve got the gravity of history in this museum. The modern and contemporary art we bring into this museum is brought into the pull of that gravity. The MCA is free to a greater extent of that gravity, and they can play the margins, they can take chances. I don’t mean to suggest that we don’t take chances, but our perspective is a different perspective. When we bring things into this museum they have to stand up against some of the greatest things ever produced by human kind.
We’ve got to remember about the things we’ve got in our collection is that they’re made by living people, by artists. So by bringing contemporary art into the building you are reminding yourself that the 6th century B.C. terra cotta pot was made by an artist. And you begin to realize and humanize the achievement of that ceramic vessel that is so many hundreds of years old by virtue of your recognizing that living artists are making the things that are in our contemporary collections.
JR: The role of a museum director, much like a C.E.O., is considered to be a visionary position. Do you sit in your office, gazing out at Lake Michigan, while thinking about AIC’s future?
JC: I think best in the process of doing things. In talking to you, in writing a memo, making a presentation to the board of trustees. It’s a very tangible exercise, its in the process of writing in the process of talking that then thoughts begin to develop. I’m not much for sitting around gazing out windows and thinking. My mind doesn’t work that way.
JR: Is there a creative process for management?
JC: I’m sure that anytime a solution is found in the face of problems a level of creativity is involved. How it is you bring people together over what set of issues presented in which order, in order to achieve and outcome that you anticipated or to identify an outcome you hadn’t anticipated. Its really about innovation, problem solving which is not that much different I would guess as a kind of intellectual exchange than making a work of art. The only difference is your medium is people, and not inert objects or electricity as it might be in the field of art
JR: Have you ever wanted to get inside the mind of an artist and see the world for their eyes?
JC: I have a number of friends who are artists. I love talking to them about what it is they do or about things of mutual interest and the mind of an artist is an extremely interesting mind. But I’ve never thought that I
JR: How much interaction do you have with unestablished artists?
JC: almost none. I’m once removed by the curators who themselves are more engaged.
JR: Is it important for Chicago’s contemporary art community to catch up to those in NYC, LA and Miami? Is Chicago at a tipping point in this regard?
JC: I don’t think Chicago should compare itself to another city. I think its really about a community. Is the community a healthy one, is mutually supportive, is it challenging, is it inspiring?
JR: How do you learn to fund raise? Let’s say, $370 million in less than 4 years?
JC: I think fundraising is about convincing people this is a good idea, this is going to make a difference in some body’s life, its going to make this city a better place in which to live and its going to preserve an important part of the artistic legacy of human kind. And you’ve got to come on board and help us… convincing them that’s its worth their investment that they can make a difference is a relatively easy thing to do if you believe in what you do. I’m giving every day by the work that I do, and I believe in this place. I can share that belief with someone else, you don’t have to learn that. There’s always an exchange when you’re asking someone for money, you’re engaging with someone so you’ve got to like working with other people to get that done. The actual transaction is just a matter of sharing your passion with the prospective donor.
JR: It sounds almost evangelical.
JC: To the extent that its about evangelizing, convincing someone to follow you. To me its like politics, its about building a community. Bringing people along in the process isn’t just getting their money, its getting their participation.
JR: Is there anything we students can do to strengthen the bond between the school and the museum?
JC: what they can do is be in this museum. To take full advantage of what we have to offer. You’ve got 4 years to be in a museum virtually everyday, it ain’t gonna happen after that, you’ve got other things to do after that, so I think being engaged is the most important thing.